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Overcoming Self-defeating Behavior

“Oh, for the love of… C’mon!”

Where was all this traffic coming from? Derek pounded the wheel in frustration, knowing he’d really blown it this time. This time… yeah. More like he’d really blown it AGAIN. But he’d driven this route to work umpteen thousand times before and never saw traffic like this. “There’s gotta be a wreck up there, all the fates conspiring against me… again, and of all days to be backed up!

(You work mids, stupid! Of course there’s no traffic most days. Everyone’s getting ready for bed when you go to work)

The sound of his own mind-voice (insulting though it might be) calmed him a little… at least it calmed the blaming of random gods conspiring with certain unknown mere mortals hell-bent on waylaying him. And then he just felt sad…

“Who am I kidding? I’m no sergeant. I only took the damned test because Jeannie thought I might make a good boss – because she’s so eager to ‘see me finally reach my potential’ and all that – but who needs the headaches? Really, who needs it… having a crew always bitching about this or that, and lieutenants crawling all over you about your crew? Talk about a thankless job; I should just go home, go to bed, hit the road tonight, and tell Jeannie to be satisfied being married to one of the best butt-kickin’, name-takin’, DUI-sniffin’ road dawgs there is! And what’s wrong with being a patrol cop, anyway? Nothing, that’s what!”

(Nice pep talk, dummy. Are YOU even buying what you’re selling?)

His vision blurred behind hot tears (You’re gonna cry now!?! Really? Okay, I’m outta here, Sally!) as he admitted that, yes, he’d really like to be a sergeant. He’d be good at it. He was smart. He was an awesome mentor. He was ready. (And you’re stuck in traffic 20 minutes away from an oral interview that started six minutes ago. Sorry. Yeah, I was going. Loser-boy here can fend for himself, it’s not like he listens to me).

The next twenty minutes were brutal as Derek replayed the oh-so familiar medley of decades old disappointments and regrets… the college degree he never finished; the baseball scholarship he walked away from – the very year he’d finally inherited a starting spot; the pro tryout his uncle, an old AAA player himself, scored him but he never showed for; the investigations (and traffic… and school resource officer… and DT instructor) gigs he let fall through the cracks; all the assignments he KNEW he’d be great at but never put in for.

Fun ride.

Derek hustled toward the Merit Board offices, concocting a semi-believable story to account for the tardiness as he ran, when a strong hand grabbed his elbow, spinning him around to face his scowling lieutenant. “Really? I put my neck out on your behalf with my word ‘cuz, despite everything, you’re a good cop and I know you’d be a good boss, but you keep on… Forget it, Derek, they went to lunch. They have a lot of SERIOUS candidates to talk to this afternoon. Go home. Get some sleep. I’ll see you tonight. And don’t EVER ask me for a favor like this again…”

Why do some people “self-defeat?” What is it that causes intelligent, talented, seemingly-got-it-all-going-on folks to flame out in the moment of truth? This has been a question researchers have asked for some time, and with limited success answering, but one that bears asking, if for no other reason than it continues to be a major impediment to the success of otherwise talented people.

Last month we looked at two men who each managed significant flame-outs: Anthony Weiner, well known wiener-tweeter, and a deputy chief in a local police department close to us in Illinois. They stick out, but each of us knows someone (perhaps even that “man in the mirror”) whose potential remains unfulfilled not because of circumstance or bad luck but rather their own bad choices. We may even know someone with whom we work in law enforcement – somewhat ironic since the profession tends to work very hard at selecting the most physically, mentally, and psychologically sound from the applicant pool, but nevertheless true – who remains stuck in place because of self-defeating behaviors.    

So, if it’s you, or maybe a buddy you really care about and hope the best for, who happens to be that “stuck” person, what should you do? First, understand what is going on that might lead to such behavior. According to psychologist Roy Baumeister (a leading researcher in this field), there are three primary models of self-destructive behavior.

The first model, according to Baumeister, is called “primary self-destruction” and includes those people who intentionally bring harm to themselves. For whatever reasons (and the reason are legion) they seek to harm or derail themselves. In the most classic sense, these are masochists determined to self-destruct because of their low self-esteem or self-hate in which they are desirous of the “unwanted” outcome.

Baumeister’s second model of self-destructive behavior is what he calls the “tradeoff.” In other word, a choice is made that offers an immediate reward in lieu of a later, undesirable, tradeoff. In a tradeoff, the person has two desirable goals that are automatically set against each other. In the classic example the individual decides to take up smoking; there is the immediate pleasurable rewards of tobacco smoking (i.e. immediate social acceptance, the relaxing effects of nicotine, etc) accepted in lieu of later consequences (nicotine addiction, detriments to health, later social rejection, etc). This is often seen among the young, for whom consequences are a distant concern, or among those who are able to easily compromise later costs against current rewards.

The third model, according to Baumeister, is one of “counterproductive strategies.” Like a tradeoff, this is common among younger or immature adults but, unlike the tradeoff, is entered into without knowledge or consideration of the potential harm. Using a counterproductive strategy “the person neither desires nor foresees the harm to self. In this instance a person is pursuing a desirable outcome but chooses a strategy or approach that backfires and produces the opposite of the desired result.”

Regardless of individual intent, or which model is represented by the failure, the outcome is negative and self-defeating. Of Baumeister’s three models, the first is most insidious because there is intent, however subliminal, to fail. In all, despite intent, failure is the outcome.

Are you getting in the way of your own success? Is someone you care about at work? Do you know you are smart but sometimes scratch your head at your own stupidity? Welcome to the club! Do you want to get out of your way, or suggest to your friend a way to stop screwing up? It’s possible but may require outside help.

So go get it; you owe it to yourself.

Derek held the clipboard in sweaty palms, wondering what came next. Finally, the door opened, the therapist stepped into the waiting room, and called his name…

Derek followed her back to the office, feeling his chest tighten and his stomach contract uncomfortably. As he settled uncomfortably into the big chair opposite the surprisingly comfortable – even casual – woman smiling across from him, he wondered why he was here… Oh, yeah, Jeannie was FURIOUS at this latest F-Up and let him know (in no uncertain terms) he’d better get it together if he thought she was sticking around! It wasn’t the sergeant’s interview – “If you don’t really want to be a sergeant, don’t be a sergeant, but if you really do then get it together for God’s sake!” - It was… every last letdown and shortfall over the last seventeen years.

“So, what brings you here today?”

Derek stumbled with the words to describe a whole adulthood of disappointment and falling short and his tongue tripped over the effort. And then the tears started falling… (Oh, for Pete’s sake… ah, well)


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About The Authors:

Althea Olson, LCSW has been in private practice in the Chicago suburbs since 1996. She has a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University providing individual, couple, & group therapy to adolescents, adults, and geriatrics. Althea is also trained in Critical Incident Stress Management & is a certified divorce mediator.

Mike Wasilewski, MSW has been with a large suburban Chicago department since 1996. He holds a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University and has served on his department’s Crisis Intervention & Domestic Violence teams. Mike is an adjunct instructor at Northwestern College.

Mike & Althea have been married since 1994 and have been featured columnists for Officer.Com since 2007. Their articles are extremely popular and they now provide the same training and information in person throughout the United States. This dynamic team was recently featured at the at the 2010 & 2011 ILEETA Conference & Exposition.

Out of their success has come the formation of More Than A Cop where the focus is providing consultation and trainings on Survival Skills Beyond The Street.